It happened faster than a car accident.
Kato, my 110 pound German Shepherd, and I were mountain biking below a ridge where I lived for eleven years in Oregon. I paused to straddle my bike and take a swig of water before beginning a long climb up a logging road. He wandered off into the brush—only to bolt out seconds later with a 700 pound elk cow on his heels. He ran straight at me—Thanks, Kato—passing inches away on my right. The elk cow, bounding hard, ears flapping, passed on my left. Inches away. I could have reached out and patted her, too. I didn’t dare.
Only then, with the backwash of her efforts to run down my dog still settling on my bare arms, did I jump off my bike and dart behind a tree. Totally feckless. Kato, of course, outran the elk and learned a vital lesson, which I’ll get to in a moment. I’m not sure what I learned, except that I’d been very lucky, a point hammered home by the game warden.
I was on a first-name basis with him because he was always about making sure animals weren’t getting hunted out of season. I ran into him the next day and told him what had happened. He shook his head and pointed out that it’s not unusual for an elk to simply run over whatever is in their way. “They’re used to doing that,” he added. “Other than trees, there’s not much they don’t run through when they’re pissed, and your dog must have really pissed her off.”
Now, it’s been said more than once that there are two kinds of dogs in the world: the ones that confront a porcupine for the first time and come away with a face full quills and learn their lesson. And the kind that spend the rest of their lives trying to get even. Kato, for all his native intelligence and excellent instincts, belonged to the latter category. But he did learn his lesson with that elk, perhaps because unlike porcupines elk are huge and, in our next encounter, they were nothing short of majestic.
It was autumn, and even in the pine forests of northern Oregon there were deciduous trees to make the sunlight sparkle with color. I wheeled around a single track trail to a meadow and found a big bull elk with a startling array of antlers standing before his herd of cows and calves. I braked. Kato braked. “Quiet,” I said to him softly.
It was the first command I ever taught him. As a seven-week-old puppy with the ears of a full grown dog sticking straight up, he’d repeatedly barked and tried to attack the vacuum as I ran it over the sleeping loft of our log cabin. Truly annoying. So purely on instinct I cupped his jaw with my hands, which also covered his eyes, and whispered “Quiet.” I had to do that about fifteen more times before finishing my chore but by then he knew the command. For the rest of his life he could be going ballistic over a someone suddenly appearing in the half-glass door to our cabin, or while backing up poachers on our land, and all I had to say was “Quiet” and his jaw stilled. My wife and I smuggled him into hotel and motel rooms when we absolutely had to—flooded campgrounds from sudden storms, that sort of thing—and he was never discovered because the moment his ears twitched one of us would say “Quiet.”
So Kato stared at that big bull elk, as I was, and never made a sound. I should note the elk stared right back at us, but he’d clearly signaled his herd to move out because they were retreating from their intruders. That bull never took his eyes off us. It was as if he were simultaneously daring us to move on inch closer while letting us know that he would not impale us if we kept our distance.
After the last calve toddled after its mother, the bull turned and followed them. I thought, What a stud! He’d protected them and hadn’t made mincemeat out of us. I was impressed—and grateful that he hadn’t charged.
I thought about those elk encounters when I read a Reuters piece this week headlined “California Drought Causes Cattle and Elk to Lock Horns Over Pasture.” The showdown is taking place in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore about thirty-five miles northwest of San Francisco. I’ve been there. It’s gorgeous.
The Pt. Reyes park is one of the few in the States that permit their domain to be used, in part, for private agricultural interests. In this case, that means cattle grazing. But the drought in California has greatly reduced the available grasslands, so ranchers want the tule elk fenced-in so their herds can have more access to the decreasing amount of pasture.
Wildlife advocates, as you might imagine, are not too keen on this. They point out that almost half the 540 elk in a 2,600 acre fenced-in part of the park died last year because the drought dried up old stock ponds. Fenced-in, the elk could not search out streams or settled water elsewhere. I need not remind anyone, I’m sure, that dying of thirst, whether you’re a biped or quadruped, is a grim affair.
The ranchers—some families date their settlement in the region back to the 1800s—call the elk “invasive species.” Which is true. The tule elk were introduced to the area in the 1970s. And I should note that the elk and cattle got along fine until the drought started burning the life out of the grass.
Now the Park Service is trying to figure out how to accommodate 6,000 cattle from twenty-four ranching operations and the relatively paltry number of elk still surviving in the park’s increasingly stark conditions. You could read a lot of meaning into this conflict. It wouldn’t be difficult. But the takeaway for me is that watching it unfold is like viewing a much more widely regarded product of the California imagination: the movie trailer. The conflict today is between elk and cows. It echoes the growing competition for water between agricultural interests and city dwellers. I can’t see how any of these zero-sum outcomes will prove satisfying.
They might not even prove survivable.
Here’s the link to the Reuters story: